WHAT WE’RE ACTUALLY AFRAID OF, Alex Clark

What We’re Actually Afraid Of
by Alex Clark

At the moment, a war in Syria sends hundreds of thousands of its citizens pouring over the borders of countries that have been hesitant in their acceptance of these refugees. In the United States, this very real conflict has been discussed, but not in detail. Enter the uprising of creepy clowns, and though only an estimated 2% of Americans suffer from colourophobia (extreme fear and anxiety related to clowns), it seems most folks don’t appreciate this influx of masked mayhem makers. Almost every day, a new sighting makes its way to my Facebook feed full of tasty recipes and politically-charged video clips that don’t cite any sources. As the clown uprising continues to grow, so does the erasure of important global events such as Syria. I don’t deny that the sudden presence of a juggalo-style jester would catch me off guard, but there are so many other things to be afraid of right now. In bull-riding competitions, rodeo clowns distract the angry animal so that the cowboy can escape and, in a way, I think this is an apt metaphor for why we’re shifting our focus from reality to something straight out of a horror movie (Rodriguez-McRobbie).

Many, including myself, who have been paying attention to this year’s election cycle fear another type of clown; reality television star and Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. To me, this clown is the most frightening, partially because I navigate this world as a trans man, and, though Trump initially feigned support for the wealthy, white members of the queer community, his running mate, Mike Pence, has a well-documented history of legislated bigotry (Kumar).

Figure 2: an illustration of Joseph Grimaldi, who Dickens used as inspiration for a washed up clown in The Pickwick Papers (Artist: George Cruikshank).

There is a history of disconcerting clown characters in popular culture; in fact, this history can be traced all the way back to the Victorian era. Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers focuses on a faded comedic actor who roams the streets in drunken dishevelment. Dickens based this character off of Joseph Grimaldi, a comedic actor who is commonly credited with the invention of the modern-day clown character. Later, Dickens would pen Grimaldi’s posthumous memoir, a melodramatic tale of a man who made a living making thousands laugh only to end his life broke and alone. In the last century or so since the memoir made its debut, the course of the clown in popular culture shifts between positive and negative (McRobbie).

There is some social media and cable news coverage of the conflict in Syria, most of it focused on the city of Aleppo. On the days I spend more time wasting away in the constant social media scroll, I do see photographs of the dusty grey remnants a city in shambles- proof of a country engaged in Civil War. If bombing persists as it has for the last year or so, the city of Aleppo will be only burning piles of debris. Of course, one more clown video covers the stories of people suffering in Aleppo, of the refugees being turned away by Europe, by the United States, by anywhere that might be safe. One more clown video is one less reminder or our current mess of a presidential campaign season. Let’s face it, we could use a little bit of palpable pulse-quickening fear to help us through our hourly social media scrolls (BBC).

Over the past few months, clown sightings have been reported in half a dozen states. There are no direct links to individual footage, but there are many compilations of clips. With over four million views, “Top 15 Scariest Clown Sightings Videos”, posted by user Top15s, has a mixture of photographs and videos of clowns from all over the country. Despite the widespread sightings, most of the footage plays out like this: The camera zooms in until someone or something begins to move closer and the camera holder unleashes an uninventive list of expletives. Then, the sound of fast-paced footsteps, then…the clip abruptly ends, no proof of escape or safety save for the fact that someone must’ve uploaded the video. I am skeptical of these videos because it’s hard to find any evidence this footage even existed before it was picked up by YouTube channels with millions of viewers or local and national news stations, but I understand why many people find this type of thing spooky.

I have no reason to fear the influx of clowns, no reason to think that, even if they lurk at the end of corn-stalked highways, on the top of billboards, in the well-manicured lawns of the cemetery, they will harm me. Then again, I no longer must be afraid of much because I am white and most of the world perceives me as a straight male. I may be trans, but I am a transman who blends well into the binary conceptualization of masculinity. My perspective is different than it used to be because my presentation was hard to identify as male or female for most strangers. I identified as a butch woman, but it’s not I could casually drop that label in conversation when I worked in retail.

Similar to Joseph Grimaldi and like many modern-day baby boomers, my girlfriend’s stepfather has fallen on hard times at a point in his life where he has a slim chance of starting over. Like many white men from his generation, he feels that he will benefit from a Trump presidency. His business went belly up and he couldn’t pay the mortgage. He lost his house and currently lives in a camper at one of the many campgrounds in the Keewanaw region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He is not the only one who has this story, not in that campground, and definitely not in this once-populated now vacant area. He is well into his seventies and he has no home, no savings, not even a heated shelter in one of the snowiest regions in the United States.

In the post-war escapism of 1950s children’s television, white-faced wig wearers such as Bozo the clown entertained in a different way. After the demise of big-tent circus entertainment, Bozo and other less-remembered staples of early morning broadcasting aimed at children brought the clown back to the forefront of social consciousness, and like the contemporary swell of more devious Ronald McDonald look-a-likes, even the wholesome clowns were a distraction from serious societal shifts. Despite our current decade’s dominant cultural narrative that paints the 1950s as a time free of controversy and fear, that stretch of ten years after the end of World War II was full of political turmoil. Protesters called for an end to segregation and just the thought of black and white students learning together incited white rage in both northern and southern states. Interracial marriage, sodomy, and cross-dressing were illegal in most states, and though there were definitely people who fought for an end to these and other legal forms of discrimination, those people were silenced, imprisoned or ignored. Life was better for professional clowns, perhaps for white heterosexual men, but not so much for people of color, queer folks, and anyone else who threatened to shift the patriarchal paradigm. (Rodriguez-McRobbie).

Before the Trump-Pence ticket promised to “make America great again” I didn’t believe I would ever witness the rebirth of McCarthyism, an attempt to take us back to those days of positive clown programming mixed in with the Cleavers, a time when white businessmen could grope their secretaries without any fear of repercussion, when women stayed trapped at home, perhaps because the only other option was to continue to be groped and underpaid in offices run exclusively by men.

After accusations from several women who have publicly stated that Donald Trump sexually assaulted them, and after Donald Trump’s recorded admittance of committing sexual assault, coupled with Pence’s transphobic and homophobic stance, they seem to support a return to the problematic policies and political conservatism of 1950s America. In this version of the U.S, I cannot exist. My trans siblings cannot exist (Kumar).

The rise of the clown as a demonic, deviant figure came, perhaps not by coincidence, during the economic depression of the 1970s with the trial of a registered clown and notorious serial killer named John Wayne Gacy. Gacey was a typical predator: charismatic, social, trusted and likable. He made money blowing up and bending balloons for children at birthdays and community events; he also killed and sexually assaulted dozens of teenage boys in Illinois. Gacy’s story made parents more alert about what kind of adults they should allow around their children. Clowns were mistrusted now because of this violation of trust. Several movies used Gacey as a blueprint for villainous and white-faced killers. It, Stephen King’s best-selling novel about a demon who takes the shape of Pennywise the clown to kill children, was adapted into a film in 1990, the year I was born. My generation is perhaps the first raised in a culture where clowns seem to have a cemented sinister reputation, one that overshadows their previous popularity.

My girlfriend’s stepdad will vote for Trump because Trump has convinced him that the corporations who did all this are not the enemy; no, they are just good at the game, and why should you be punished for being good at making money. No, it is the illegal immigrants, the black and brown folks asking for, at the very least, an admittance of intentional oppression so easily found in the constitution and other foundations of law in The United States, and at the very most, a fair chance at a good, safe, economically stable life. It is the students like me, young people who can now get covered under Obamacare because they don’t make enough money to afford any other health insurance option. He is furious, but he refuses to see that he is unleashing his fury on the wrong people.

I may pass as a cisgender man, but my driver’s license still describes me as female; the name on all my identification and credit cards still reads Allison. I fear that I could see my very existence threatened by a Trump-Pence presidency, as it has been with recent bathroom bill legislation in North Carolina and other states. At the moment, the official political rhetoric from this campaign is that they support abolishing the legal protection of trans public school students who want to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity, a piece of legislation that President Obama signed into law just a few months ago. This repeal would encourage other states to pass bathroom bills. I don’t believe that Trump will protect my right to exist freely as myself, much less my trans-feminine siblings who face a frightening amount of violence and systematic oppression—oppression that I escaped, but which could impact me. It may start with banning access to a basic human right, but I do not believe it will end there. Even more so, I fear for queer-identified Muslim immigrants and people of color who already must navigate the unnerving web of xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia that exists in this society.

I understand why we drown out the real fear of these things by sensationalizing the sighting of creepy clowns. In reality, there have been no real murders, sexual assaults, or abductions reported by the clowns that are said to stalk and roam urban and rural America. There is fun in pretending to be afraid of someone or something. Watching a horror movie, walking through a haunted house, sharing a video of a make-upped and menacing knife-wielding jester in the shadows. It’s all the same; escapism from terror, through terror.

There is a very real threat of a man who proudly proclaims that he committed sexual assault being placed at the helm of our country. It feels like there is very little we can do to help those poor souls stuck in the violence and war in Syria, save for support legislation that would allow refugees to re-settle in The United States. Even then, it seems that the United States is no safe place for any black or brown person to be in anyway. Sure, they can live here without fear of being bombed or shot by rebel forces or government-backed brutes, but there is little protection from the American citizens that see these people as the problem, who use their fear as a legitimate reason to shoot, beat up, or kill, or from local and state law enforcement that shoot first and ask questions later.  So, we cover up our concerns with colouraphobia; clowns become the thing we want to fear out of fear of the things we are really afraid of.

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Alex Clark is a candidate at Northern Michigan University. His work explores unpacking the privilege experienced when trans masculine folks fit into the strict confines of the gender binary after medically transitioning.
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About barkingsycamores 129 Articles
Barking Sycamores is a literary journal entirely edited and operated by queer neurodivergent people of color. We publish poetry, artwork, short fiction (beginning with Issue 3), creative nonfiction (beginning with Issue 8), and hybrid genre work (beginning with Issue 9) by emerging and established neurodivergent writers as well as essays on neurodiversity and literature and book reviews (beginning with Issue 10).

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